Mishkan ha-Echad

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Hebrew Pronunciation & Spelling, Part 2

In Part One we covered the often confused issue of vowels in the Hebrew language. Now let's look at some similarly confusing letters that have multiple sounds, along with resolving some confusions over doubled up letters in the English transliteration. We'll save prepositions for a future post.

Division of Letters

Hebrew has 22 letters, but these are split into three different groups: Mothers, Doubles, and Simples (or Singles), which we learn in the Third Knowledge Lecture. 

The Mother Letters are Aleph, Mem, and Shin, relating to the three primary elemental forces. The term 'mother' for these is appropriate since all other forces are born from these elements.

The Double Letters are Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Peh, Resh, Tav. These relate to the seven planets.

The Simple or Single Letters are the remaining twelve letters: Heh, Vav, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Lamed, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Tzaddi, Qoph.

The terms 'Mother' and 'Simple' are fairly common sense, but 'Double Letters' can seem very confusing at first, but really it boils down to the simple fact that they have two pronunciations.

Double Letters - Double Sounds

All seven Double Letters traditionally have two sounds, a hard sound and a soft one. These are as follows:

בּ Beth (Hard) - B
ב Beth (Soft) - V (Bh)

גּ Gimel (Hard) - G
ג Gimel (Soft) - Gh

דּ Daleth (Hard) - D
ד Daleth (Soft) - Dh

כּ Kaph (Hard) - K
כ Kaph (Soft) - Kh

פּ Peh (Hard) - P
פ Peh (Soft) - Ph (F)

רּ Resh (Hard) - R
ר Resh (Soft) Rh

תּ Tav (Hard) - T
ת Tav (Soft) - Th

The first thing you'll note is that all of the soft sounds work by adding a 'h'. This softens the sound so it has less impact and becomes more guttural or fricative. 

Technically all of these sounds employ the 'h', including the 'v' sound of Beth. In many languages (including Irish) when something is spelled as 'bh' the sound is pronounced 'v' (a fricative 'b'). The same for Resh - the 'h' helps roll the sound; this can become clearer if you put the 'h' in front of the 'r' - for example, in how you would pronounce 'hroll'.

In English we do this with the letter 'w' in words like where and wheel. Most of us pronounce this with a hard 'w', but the sound is really a fricative 'w', denoted by 'wh'. The difference in the sound is that it tremors, vibrates, or buzzes, compared to the explosive sound of the hard form of the letter. This dual sound for 'w' isn't present in Hebrew, but it might help you get a better idea of where the Double Letter sounds come from.

The 'dh' sound of Daleth and 'th' sound of Tav are very similar, but neither are really used nowadays (we use them in the proper English pronunciation of words like though and there, however).

The soft Resh is pronounced at the back of the throat. It's like a cross between a thrill and a guttural 'r'. Many people pronounce this as a normal thrill, however, primarily because it's easier. In modern Hebrew Resh is always pronounced in its soft form. However, English-speakers who learn Hebrew tend to always pronounce it like the normal English 'r', since it's difficult to pronounce the other variation.

The hard and soft Peh are both used today, such as in Sephiroth (soft Peh - 'ph', pronounced as an 'f') and Qlippoth (hard Peh -'p').

The soft Kaph is pronounced like Cheth, the harsh guttural 'ch' sound found in Scottish loch or German bach. This is why certain words like Malkuth employ the Cheth sound for Kaph and why some people spell it as Malkhut.

The soft Gimel sound is very alien to English speakers, as it employs the back of the throat in a way similar to that of Cheth, albeit with a 'g'. It's almost like a choking sound. This is generally not used in modern Hebrew anymore.

The double sounds that have survived in modern Hebrew are: Beth, Kaph, Peh and Tav, although Tav has become indistinguishable from Teth in pronunciation for the most part. The double sounds for Gimel, Daleth and Resh have faded out, mainly because they were difficult to pronounce (Gimel), somewhat obsolete (Daleth), or became the standard (Resh).

Doubles & The Dagesh

You might have noticed a little dot in the middle of the Hebrew letters above that contain the hard sounds. This is called a dagesh, which is used to help you see the difference in pronunciation. It was not employed in original Biblical Hebrew, since the Rabbis knew the words by heart, including the subtle differences in pronunciation, but the modern language tends to use them. However, you'll generally not see a few of them, such as Gimel and Resh, since the second sound (which would employ the dagesh) has been lost.

[If you have difficulty seeing the dagesh in the letters, try pressing CTRL and + on your keyboard to zoom in on the article. You can make things smaller with CTRL and -. CTRL and 0 will return everything to normal.]

Shin & Sin

Shin is another letter that has two sounds, yet it is not one of the Doubles. Primarily it is pronounced as 'sh', but sometimes, very rarely, it is pronounced 's', similar to Samekh. The letter is sometimes written and pronounced Sin when denoting the 's' sound.

When a dagesh is employed for Shin it goes above the letter, either on the right or left. If it's above the right prong of the letter (שׁ) it's pronounced 'sh'; if it's above the left (שׂ), it's pronounced 's'.

A rule of thumb for Shin is that it's predominantly pronounced as 'sh'. For example, Shalom (שלום), Shemesh (שמש), and Shabbathai (שבתאי). However, in some rare cases you'll see words spelled with an 's' in the English transliteration, but with a Shin in the Hebrew. For example, Seraphim (שרפים). At first glance you'd think this is spelled with a Samekh (the usual letter for an 's' sound), but the Hebrew employs a Shin. These exceptions or irregularities, like those in all languages, simply need to be learned by heart, since they do not follow the rules.

This problem for Shin is exacerbated by some common Hebrew words that have crept into the English language, such as Sabbath (שבת). This is technically pronounced Shabbath, but many modern English-speaking Jews pronounce it Sabbath, since this is the common pronunciation we are used to. This is deceptive, however, and doesn't do us any favours in learning how to spell the language. This is why I always spell the transliterations of these words as they are pronounced in Hebrew; i.e. Shabbath.

Double Letters in Transliteration

You might come across some instances where you see a doubled up consonant in the transliterated form of a Hebrew word. Some examples are: Qlippoth (קליפות) and Tiqqun (תיקון).

It is easy to be tempted into putting two of the same letters in to the Hebrew spelling, but all doubled-up letters in the English transliteration are a single letter in Hebrew. These represent the hard sounds, with the transliteration showing two of the letter to drive the point home that it's pronounced with a strong explosive sound (often called plosives in linguistics).

A rule of thumb is that you never put the same Hebrew letter twice unless there's a vowel sound between them. For example, Metatron is spelled MTTRVN (מטטרון). Teth is there twice in a row, but that's because there are vowels between them. The word is not Mettaron - if it was there would only be a single Teth in the Hebrew, despite there being two in the English transliteration.

In Part Three we'll cover some common prepositions and two very common endings you'll see in many of the words we use in the Qabalah.

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